Few retailers – on the high street or online – are able to meet the increasingly desperate demand for the No 1 Christmas toy
‘I don’t even want to go in … I’m just standing out here, cringing.” Outside Toys R Us, at the Whiteleys shopping centre in Bayswater, central London, a woman who preferred not to give her name was looking for a Furby. In fact, she would find herself in luck, but having been to three other shops already, she’d need to screw her courage to the sticking point to find that out.
“The problem isn’t with us,” Simon, on the tills at John Lewis, Oxford Street, told me. “It’s the manufacturer. They must be kicking themselves. I suppose some people will buy them in January, but you don’t get to be the Christmas toy twice.”
Ah, the Christmas toy; the dark side of the season, the perfect antidote to all the merrymaking. Nobody knows which it will be; everybody this year thought it would be some variant of kid-tablet, the iPad mini for older kids and the LeapPad for smaller ones, not this retro “plush” with big eyes.
I asked Peter and William, both 14, what the appeal of it was, and William explained kindly: “It’s the experience of having a pet, without the responsibility of having to feed it and look after it and make sure it’s alive.” Huh … but isn’t that the whole point of having a pet, making sure they’re alive? Otherwise you’ve just got a thing, taking up space.
To be fair to Hasbro, the manufacturer, toy sales were rather sluggish last month (down 6% on November 2011); but recession shopping habits don’t necessarily amount to people buying fewer things. Rather, according to Toy News (yes, really) the trend is to wait until the week before Christmas, in the hope of last-minute discounts. Because of where Christmas falls – delivering two extra shopping days on last year, please don’t ask me how they figure this out – this means they’re expecting toy sales to top £400m in just these three weeks. It is an insane amount of money, but no sum is great enough to get you the It toy before 6 January.
On Regent Street, fake snow swirls around dithering families, and teenagers from France incomprehensibly try to get pictures of each other next to a Hamley’s elf. This is the ultimate toy shopping experience, mainly because the assistants love toys so much (or else, are all at drama school). The air is alive with the sound of young people going: “Look at this amazing helicopter”, and: “If I just draw an eye, here, you can see that I’ve turned your thumbnail into a panda!”
When you ask an elf for a Furby, they direct you to the Build-a-Bear workshop, I guess hoping that when you notice how cool the bears are, you will put away your childish dream of a toy that no longer exists. When finally someone admitted they had run out of Furbies, I got that rush of cortisol that precedes a tantrum. I realised I was just about to shout at an elf. And I don’t even want one of these eerie toys (I didn’t shout. I had a word with myself, bought a Build-a-Bear football strip on a whim and left quietly.)
“I think it’s a parent thing more than a child thing,” Michelle told me, in the queue at John Lewis, buying a strange toy that you squish in the shape of SpongeBob Squarepants (I’m taking a punt that her children aren’t Guardian readers). “The theatre of the toy: did I get it in time? how clever have I been?” Despite having one four-year-old son, and stepsons of five, eight and 10, she didn’t have a Furby-fancier in the household. “Although I would quite like one for me,” she said. “As a dog substitute.”
The question is why the internet hasn’t stamped out this sort of thing, indeed, why shops still exist at all. I like to think it’s because everyone’s on an Amazon boycott, but I doubt it. Besides, since this is a manufacturer shortage not a stock problem, going online doesn’t help (actually, that’s not quite true – Argos still has a small number of the ones with the Mohicans. They also have some brilliant product reviews, including: “Love the black one, but is slightly grey/black. Can’t wait until Xmas to open it fully.” Age: 25 to 34. Gender: male)
How did Toys R Us make it through the drought, anyway? “We never run out of anything,” said Jack, 23-year-old shop assistant, loyally.
So that’s something to bear in mind, if – like so many – you are in the last-minute Furby market. But the likelihood is, if you’re reading this, you’re already too late.